To vote in Pennsylvania in Tuesday's presidential election means navigating a minefield of bureaucratic, legal and political hurdles.
South Philadelphia resident Montana Tyler is a case in point. While she got to vote by mail, her mother, daughter and the 82-year-old woman she works for as a caregiver didn't even receive the mail-in ballots they requested.
So like thousands of others across this crucial battleground state, she found herself lining up for hours outside Philadelphia City Hall, one of dozens of special election sites, to make sure their request to vote by mail didn't fall through the cracks.
"This has been the most horrific experience that I have ever received and I'm quite sure most people that live in the United States have ever gone through for voting," Tyler said.
This is the first presidential election in Pennsylvania to be conducted largely by mail-in ballots. The state changed its election laws in 2019 to make voting by mail more accessible, but the process has been fraught with a surge in demand due to the coronavirus pandemic, a series of lawsuits and uncertainty around the United States Postal Service.
All of these voting issues, observers worry, have the potential to shift the balance of power in the state and possibly upend the presidential race itself.
A key race for both parties
The focus on which votes get accepted and which votes get counted is especially important in a vital battleground state such as Pennsylvania, which once backed the Democrats but narrowly swung to the Republicans in 2016.
Its 20 electoral college votes are seen as key for the White House ambitions of both U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Joe Biden — and given that Trump beat Hillary Clinton by only 44,292 votes in 2016, any attempt to invalidate or suppress the vote is seen as potentially tipping the balance of power in the state.
RealClearPolitics, a U.S. political news site and polling data aggregator, shows a tight race in Pennsylvania between Biden and Trump — with the former Democratic vice-president ahead by just 3.6 points as of Friday evening, 49.5 per cent to 45.9 per cent for Trump.
With so much riding on the outcome in Pennsylvania, it's become a battleground in the courts with numerous election-related lawsuits — as Republicans, primarily, challenge everything from registration and voting deadlines to signatures, as well as a bid to allow poll watchers at satellite early voting sites.
The cumulative effect of the court battles and controversy has meant a lot of sleepless nights for election officials, including Philadelphia election commissioner Lisa Deeley.
In an interview with CBC News outside the early voting site at Philadelphia City Hall, she said she's never experienced an election like this one.
"I have never, ever — and I don't know that we ever will [again] — because it's just everything at once, it's all these new changes. It's the pandemic," Deeley said. "These are unique times."
Fear of 'naked ballots'
Deeley's biggest fear is the issue of "naked ballots." She has warned that it could result in potentially hundreds of thousands of votes being rejected.
Pennsylvania law requires voters to put their ballot in a secrecy envelope and then place it in the return envelope before mailing it back or dropping it off at a designated box. Failure to use the secrecy envelope that comes with the ballot is considered a naked ballot, and it's discarded.
In September, the state Supreme Court ruled against Democrats that ballots mailed back without the secrecy envelope would not be counted.
"That's just a vestige from the past when we would count absentee ballots at the precinct level. We haven't done that in years," Deeley said. "We're going to be counting at an industrial level, so there's no chance that voters' identities are in any way going to be compromised."
When Philadelphia held a primary election in June, she said, six per cent of mail-in ballots were rejected because of this rule. Projecting that number state-wide could result in 300,000 to 400,000 ballots getting tossed, Deeley said.
That's a significant number in a state decided by a slim margin in the 2016 election and where the overwhelming majority of mail-in ballots are from voters registered as Democrats.
"For one vote that has been applied for properly ... to see that voter not have their voice heard or their vote counted simply because of a technicality is really, really unfair," she said.
Post office controversy
Even for those voters who received their mail-in ballots, there are still potential pitfalls. The simple act of mailing a ballot has become politicized and a source of controversy. Accusations against the Trump administration of interfering with the post office over the summer, combined with the president's ongoing attacks against the legitimacy of mail-in ballots, make many voters nervous.
"I don't trust the mail to get there in time. I wanted to make sure it counted," Theresa Van Praet said after placing her ballot in a drop box set up outside the country office in Levittown, just northeast of Philadelphia.
On a sunny afternoon, there's a steady stream of cars as people pop out to place their mail-in ballots inside the box — which is itself a source of litigation. It's guarded by an officer with the sheriff's department, ensuring the one-person, one-ballot rule is followed, with security cameras in place.
In continually suggesting that mail-in ballots are rife with fraud, Trump has pointed to examples in Pennsylvania — in one case elevating a minor clerical error to the national spotlight.
"There's a lot of controversy," said Sherry Walters, who came to the Levittown drop box with her daughter, Jessica, who was voting for the first time.
"I never had a problem with the mail, but there's just a lot of stuff going on, so we just wanted to give the best shot for our vote to go where we want it to go."
When will votes be counted?
But just when the votes piling up in those drop boxes and received by mail will be counted is yet another fault line in Pennsylvania.
Along with Michigan and Wisconsin, Pennsylvania is one of the key battleground states where mail-in ballots can't be counted ahead of time. Instead, counting can begin on election day or possibly later in some counties that prioritize counting in-person voting first.
WATCH | Philadelphia voters case ballots in person amid mail-in vote uncertainty:
With more than 62 per cent of mail-in ballot requests coming from Democrats, according to Pennsylvania's secretary of state, some election law experts suggest that early results — which will be weighted toward in-person voting — will likely skew toward the Republicans, since they are more likely to show up to vote in person on election day.
After numerous court battles, Pennsylvania will accept mail-in ballots up to three days after the election, as long as they're postmarked by election day on Tuesday.
The U.S. Supreme Court has twice rejected petitions from Republicans to change this, although it could revisit the issue after the election — forcing counties to hold any ballots that arrive after 8 p.m. on Tuesday separately in case they get tossed out by the courts.
Trump wants results on election night
In Philadelphia County, the state's largest, Lisa Deeley said one thing is certain when it comes to the vote count: "There will not be full election results on Nov. 3, that is one thing that's for sure.
"We'll have what we have on Nov. 3, and we will continue to count in a 24-hour cycle."
Election observers worry that could lead to a nightmare scenario where, in a close election, early results are dominated by Republican in-person voting — showing an advantage for the president, who this week said he wants a result on election night.
WATCH | Why thousands of votes could be thrown out in Pennsylvania:
"I think on [Nov. 3], we're going to over-perform, and we'll see what happens at the end of the day, hopefully it won't go longer than that," Trump said on Wednesday during a campaign stop in Las Vegas.
"Hopefully the few states remaining that want to take a lot of time after Nov. 3 to count ballots — that won't be allowed by the various courts."
The fear is that Trump will double up on his claims of fraud as those ballots are counted after election day, especially if they add to the Democratic vote totals, and that he could turn to the courts to try to invalidate the results.
Deeley said officials in Philadelphia are working to maintain the integrity of the process, "so voters and all the world, as they wait, can be assured that we are going to count as quickly and as accurately as possible."
Montana Tyler and others in the line in Philadelphia believe in the process but know that election night is going to have them on the edge of their seats.
"Everyone's on pins and needles," Tyler said. "Election night, I don't think anybody's going to be sleeping, they're going to be up biting their fingernails and praying."
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